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When Legend Becomes Fact
By Paul Burkholder
The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable
Copyright © 2012, All Rights Reserved

I think the historiography of the Civil War – the story of how the Civil War history was created and handed down to us – is as interesting as any other aspect of the Civil War. There may be other instances when the history of a war was written by the losers of the conflict, but I’m not aware of one. That, of course, is exactly what happened with the American Civil War; its history, as Americans have been taught it for the last 145 years, was largely written, framed and colored by veterans of the Confederacy and those sympathetic to its cause.

Lee was a genius. Grant was a butcher and a drunk. The war was fought over tariffs and states’ rights. All the good West Pointers went south and all the crummy ones went north. The Union won on an overwhelming superiority of numbers, wealth and materiel. The fact that in that previous sentence I used the word “Union” instead of “United States of America” is itself a telling indicator of how much the Confederate view of the war has become our historical view of the war. Why wouldn’t I, or anyone, say “United States of America” in that context? Why, in all of our history books, is the side that had its seat of government in Washington never referred to as the “United States of America” or “American,” but always as “Union”, or “Northern” or “Yankee”? We similarly never read about the Civil War exploits of the U.S. Army or the U.S. Navy. Why do we not use these terms? Why do we say “Union” instead of “United States“?

Conversely, while the term “Rebels” or “Rebs” is sometimes used to refer to Southern forces in the Civil War literature, “Confederates,” “CSA,” and “Confederate States of America” (in addition to “Southern”) are used far more commonly and almost always when the formal actions of the Southern government and its military are being described.

Why? Why, with our language, do we choose to elevate one side while reducing the other?

The answer, of course, is to soften the hard, unpleasant facts of the war, who waged it, and why. These unpleasant facts include things like the “states’ right” the Southern states seceded and fought for was the right to own slaves; like that the noble cavaliers of the Confederacy committed treason when they took up arms against the United States of America, particularly those veterans of the pre-war regular army who broke their loyalty oaths to do it; like that Robert E. Lee’s two Northern invasions were horrible failures that nearly destroyed his army and that, at Gettysburg in particular, Lee’s failed tactics and personal miscalculations contributed more to his army’s defeat than the mistakes of subordinates (i.e. Hill, Ewell, Early, Stuart, and Longstreet who typically shoulder the blame); like that Ulysses S. Grant’s record as a butcher was exceeded by, of all people, Lee, whose casualty rates over the last 18-months of the war were substantially higher than Grant’s. Why, after 150 years, are we STILL misrepresenting and arguing over these points? What is our emotional stake in the answers?

I’ve recently read two excellent books on the topic of the creation of (false) Civil War history. The first, The Myth of the Lost Cause and Civil War History, is a collection of essays by nine different historians edited by Gary Gallagher and Alan Nolan. The nine essays cover multiple aspects of the Lost Cause myth, the most interesting one being the role Jubal Early, his widow, and Confederate heritage groups played in the creation and propagation of the Civil War history we all learned growing up and that’s still largely taught in our schools today.

The other book, These Honored Dead: How The Story Of Gettysburg Shaped American Memory, by Thomas Desjardin, explores and debunks whole chunks of the Gettysburg story we know, love, and retell. The central character in Desjardin’s book is John Bachelder a portrait and landscape artist who, remarkably, managed to fashion a career for himself as the preeminent Gettysburg historian of the 19th century based on one, after-the-battle topographic map he drew-up to make some money. Many aspects of the Gettysburg story that are today retold as history were, in fact, created by Bachelder to promote himself and his work. It was Bachelder, for example, who not only coined the terms “copse of trees” and “high-water mark of the Confederacy,” but who also single-handedly decided the significance of both in the Gettysburg story.

The creation of the historical record that we so enjoy studying is a fascinating story in its own right, as fascinating as the original story the historical record purports to tell. I think the process by which we come to believe what we believe says as much about us as what we actually claim to believe.

At the end of the movie western The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Senator Ransom Stoddard (played by Jimmy Stewart) who built a long, successful political career on being the man who killed the notorious outlaw Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), reveals to a group of reporters that it was, in fact, his friend, the late Tom Donavan (John Wayne) who shot Valance. The reporters care not a whit about this important bit of truth, telling Stoddard as they dejectedly walk away, “Senator, when the legend becomes fact, print the legend.”

I sometimes wonder if it’s legend with which we history buffs are so enthralled and not history.


Ulysses S. Grant
(aka "The Drunken Butcher")
Robert E. Lee
(aka "The Chivalrous Cavalier")

The Cleveland Civil War Roundtable